The American West in the European Imagination

     Take, for example, the Czechoslovak passion for 'Tramping.' Only tramp in Czech doesn't quite mean what it means in English! Modern Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, the direct consequence of Woodrow Wilson's policy of helping the former nations of the Austro-Hungarian empire acquire statehood. America and things American have therefore always enjoyed a special place in the hearts of ordinary Czechs.

     Tramping is still an inexpensive way of expressing this newfound freedom on an individual level. Successive generations of girls and boys have learnt to camp, canoe, hike, ride horses, all the while pretending to be Indians or Cowboys. Country and western music has become a Czech art form. But it's not a pale imitation of Nashville. The Czechs have indigenized it, given it the rhythms of their country dances and polkas, turned it into yet another metaphor about Freedom and the lack of it under Communism in their own country.

     And there are even Czech cowboys! 'Hospadath', for example, is a wiry, unlined sixty-five year-old bachelor living in mountains of Moravia who should have been born in another country and another century. He's managed to eke out a living as a cowboy under Communism. Eight years ago, a former Tramp called Jindryk Bilek met Hospadath. Together they organised a recreation of the Pony Express ride through Moravia to Bilek's home town of Sochdul. On one level, a wonderful ride for man and horse. On another, a subtle statementthat all could understand about Freedom. The Communists couldn't ban the ride. But they couldn't ignore its popularity or its true significance.

     Ironically, now that Communism is no more, the Pony Express is struggling to survive under capitalism. Under Communist rule everyone offered their services for free. They were fighting a common enemy. Now, the enemy gone, they all want their cut, but commercial sponsorship is all but unknown in Czechoslovakia and how to charge admission to a woman sitting in her garden watching the riders gallop by through the woods?

     All over the former Communist Europe it was the same story. Grown men and women spent every available moment of their free time dressing up as cowboys and indians and learning how to live- Friday through Sunday- as a cowhand or a Lakota Sioux. It was good fun. But it also made a political statement.

In Western Europe there's a similar tradition of Cowboy and Indian clubs. Thousands of European take off their suits and ties every Friday evening, get in their cars and drive to he club grounds in the forest to spend the weekend in a teepee or chuck wagon, eating, sleeping, living like a cowboy or Red Indian.

Of course, this has nothing to do with Communism. But in its ways it's also about Freedom, a form of statement against an over-regimented society (In Germany, for example, it's illegal to fire a rifle, ride a horse or camp unless one belongs to a registered club and performs these activities on club premises!)

It's easy to poke fun at these weekend Cowboys and Indians. But this is to ignore why they spend considerable money and risk such ridicule dressing up. If the American Frontier is also Europe's Frontier it's legitimate and makes sense. Cowboy and Indian clubs, not to mention a small cantankerous band of trappers, are a commentary about contemporary European concerns.

Many of the Indians I've met in Belgium and Germany, for instance, are attracted to their hobby out of a concern for ecology. They maintain the Indian way of life, Indian values are a statement against the rape of Nature by Man and Machine in the name of a false god called Progress. If this makes them Romantics so be it.

Escapism? Fantasy? Maybe. But these are intelligent men and women, computer programmers, truck drivers, interior decorators, for whom the American West offers another identity necessary for their mental stability, a means of going back into history to make sense of as world in which they often alienated; another way for Man to renew the search for identity and his relationship with Nature.

Of course, many ordinary Europeans have now visited the West. They know full well their dream is about an America that no longer exists, may never have existed. But they are content with the myth because it fulfills needs that are, have always been, and will doubtless remain profoundly European in nature, owing only a passing acquaintance to a reality called America.

Julian Crandall Hollick is an award-winning documentary producer for National Public Radio. WGBH/Boston will distribute nationwide this Fall his 90 minute special "Winnetou and Old Shatterhand" about the European myth of the American West.

Repirinted with permission from Montana Magazine © 1992 Julian Crandall Hollick

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